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Nathan Lewis

Nathan Lewis

Posted: June 26, 2009 07:45 AM

Where's The Gold?


The Comex is the name for the largest gold futures market in the world, traditionally centered in New York City. Although the market recently became part of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, it has retained its old nickname. Also, the depositories which hold the actual bars of gold used to settle the futures contracts remain in New York City.

A gold depository must be the most boring business on earth. They charge a small monthly fee to store 100oz. standardized bars of gold in an insured vault. It is an industrial-sized version of a safe deposit box.

The owner of a 100oz. bar owns a specific chunk of gold. It has a manufacturer, a serial number, and an exact weight measured to the 1/100th of an ounce. A written depository receipt -- similar to an old-fashioned paper share certificate -- shows the exact date the bar entered the depository, and the entire chain of ownership since that date; they often change hands without leaving the depository. You can request to withdraw the bar from the depository, and you should receive exactly the bar indicated.

Interest in precious metals as an investment has been heating up, and some fund managers have begun to take very large positions. Demand for Comex gold bars has been increasing -- especially as they are significantly cheaper per ounce than alternatives like 1oz. bullion coins or the kilogram bars popular in Europe.

Jim Sinclair of jsmineset.com, a legendary gold trader, reported that some of his contacts have told him that, when they request to withdraw their 100oz. bars from the Comex depositories, they have not received the proper indicted bars. They received a bar, but not one with the correct serial number or weight.

Why not? One possibility is that an honest mistake was made. The high demand recently has apparently kept the depository workers very busy. Wall Street veterans recall that delivery errors were chronic in the days of paper share certificates.

Another possibility is that the bar indicated on the warehouse receipt does not actually exist. The implications of that are rather dire.

This would not be so troubling if there were not already a series of very odd things happening down at the Comex. Delivery delays have been chronic. This could be a symptom of an overworked staff. Or, it could be a purposeful stalling tactic. In any case, it should not take weeks and possibly even months, and sometimes dozen of inquiries, to get the gold you already own out of the warehouse.

The Comex itself, however, has been reporting that business at the warehouse is very slow. The daily reports of warehouse movements show almost nothing happening, day after day. So which is it, busy or not busy?

As futures contracts expire, a certain number of holders elect to pay cash to receive the physical gold. The number of delivery notices has been very high since autumn of last year. For example, in May, investors requested the delivery of 20 million ounces of silver, against a dealer inventory of about 64 million ounces. Since then, there has been no record of anywhere near that amount of silver leaving dealer inventory, being delivered into the warehouse, entering customer inventory, or leaving the warehouse. Another 17.45 million ounces of silver were requested in March, evidence of which was nowhere to be seen in the warehouse reports.

In April, delivery notices were sent on a whopping 1.5 million ounces of gold, against 2.5 million ounces of dealer inventory. That month, Deutsche Bank alone delivered 850,000 ounces. This coincided, rather suspiciously, with a sale of 1.14 million ounces of gold by the European Central Bank that month, suggesting that Deutsche Bank was being bailed out in a big way. Nothing of this size turned up in the warehouse reports. Nothing followed similarly large deliveries in December 2008. By Comex rules, all physical deliveries must go through the warehouse. What happened? Until investors receive an explanation from the exchange, which has thus far been silent, we must regard it as being very suspicious. Very, very suspicious.

What does it all mean? First, there are indications that the seller side of futures contracts (such as Deutsche Bank in April) are having a difficult time making good on their commitments. Second, the information reported by the Comex regarding physical inflows and outflows is looking more and more like a convenient fiction. Third, there is some doubt as to whether there is gold in inventory -- as there absolutely should be -- to match existing warehouse receipts. Fourth, the Comex warehouse is one of the most secure forms of gold investment in the world. If they can't be trusted, what does that say about ETFs, pooled accounts, futures, forwards, options, and all the other forms of "paper gold" out there? Fifth, if it becomes clearer that there is no physical supply to meet physical demand, the dollar price of gold could go much higher.